Mark Godfrey

Does smalltown America, rather than MLS, hold the key to the US Men's revival?

Mark Godfrey
Does smalltown America, rather than MLS, hold the key to the US Men's revival?

BY ALEX JACKSON

For the sport of association football, the United States of America has long been regarded as the final frontier. There are many countries out there where football is not the national sport, but none are quite so attractive to the suits in charge as the US. It has a large population; some of the largest stadia in the world; enormous media markets and broadcasters; and, most importantly for football's governing bodies, wealth.

It's no secret that the American sports industry is a powerhouse, but only once it's put into context can you understand just how powerful it is. According to a Forbes report from 2016, of the Top 10 most valuable sports teams in the world, seven were American. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United were the only non-Americans to make the list, at 2nd, 3rd and 5th respectively. The no. 1 team, a good $300million richer than Real Madrid, were the Dallas Cowboys, and 3 other NFL teams were among them. When you consider that American Football has but a fraction of the global reach that football does, it says a lot about the spending power of the American market. Americans love their sports, and in turn broadcasters spend millions to satisfy their craving. It's no surprise that the powers that be on our side of the pond have long wanted to get their hands on a slice of the American pie.

It's been a gradual process, with many bumps along the way, but so far it seems to be bearing fruit. Major League Soccer (MLS) has soared in value: in 2008 the average MLS franchise was worth $37million, ten years later the average is $223million. Attendances have rocketed: Seattle Sounders obliterated attendance records upon their arrival in 2009, and they have since been comfortably surpassed by Atlanta United. Across 2016/17 MLS held the third highest average attendance of all major US sports leagues, behind only the NFL and MLB.

And yet the health of US men's soccer could not be any worse. Though the domestic game booms, internationally it is stumbling. Their 'glory days' were the 2002 World Cup, a time when MLS was still haemorrhaging money, but despite the growth of the game domestically the US have never matched the achievements of that summer. After a promising 2010 World Cup, Jurgen Klinsmann was appointed to take the US to the next level, but the team didn't kick on as hoped, nor did the youth development that fans hoped Klinsmann could bring in order for the next generation to succeed America's ageing stars.

The cracks began to appear after Klinsmann's departure and the return of Bruce Arena to the US national hot seat; widely regarded as an overly cautious and safe move made by executives with no real plan for US soccer beyond securing World Cup qualification and reaping its subsequent rewards. That 'safe' move backfired on the night of October 10, 2017 in the Trinidadian capital of Port of Spain. The already-eliminated hosts stunned the visitors with a 2-1 victory, ending the US's string of seven consecutive World Cup finals’ appearances.

Unsurprisingly, Bruce Arena has fallen on his sword for this, but the pitchforks have not been put away just yet. The entire US Soccer establishment is wallowing in a period of soul-searching, examining past mistakes and identifying what needs to change and who needs to be deposed in order to prevent this from happening again. Perhaps surprisingly, eyes are not trained towards the top as a solution for US soccer, but the bottom.

Here in the UK much is heard of the term 'grassroots', usually as a go-to solution after another drubbing at an international tournament. Feed into the grassroots and make it healthy and strong, and it'll pay dividends higher up the food chain. For American sports, the idea of grassroots is pretty much unheard of. While there are minor league teams in many sports, they are usually feeders for major league teams, a testing ground for their prospect players rather than independent clubs and fanbases. They rarely feature in the stories of great players: the tale of Babe Ruth's rise to stardom begins with the Boston Red Sox, not the (then minor league) Baltimore Orioles.

Beneath the MLS, however, a story more familiar to Europe is playing out. While the US has no promotion or relegation, many of the teams that have joined MLS during its rapid expansion are reincarnations of pre-existing lower-division clubs. Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Montreal, Minnesota and Orlando all began life in the lower tiers of American soccer and were “promoted” by virtue of success or simply support.

Even after this, lower-tier teams continue to capture American hearts and minds. FC Cincinnati draws in average crowds exceeding 20,000; Sacramento Republic average 10,000 a game, while Indy Eleven, Louisville City and the Texas twins of San Antonio and Rio Grande Valley have all made an impression in their cities.

However, while these clubs may occupy lower, less-important divisions of the game, they can hardly be considered grassroots. The aforementioned teams play in a professional league, for whom even the worst-attended teams average in excess of 1,000 spectators per game. New and exciting they may be, but amateurs they certainly aren't.

That is not to say there isn't an amateur, truly grassroots section of the American game. Quite the opposite. As the top of US Soccer wanders aimlessly around a dark cul-de-sac, America is undergoing a footballing renaissance at the grassroots, and it's happening in leagues like the UPSL.

The UPSL is a curious thing. It began life in 2011 as a strictly Californian league composed of just 10 teams. Eight years later it boasts 157 teams, spread the length and breadth of the nation across 9 conferences. The format is fairly straightforward: you play your conference schedule and if you win your conference you book your place in the national play-offs for the title of UPSL champion. It's not unlike the regional football leagues of England, except this is being acted out in a nation the size of a continent by teams with fewer resources. To find out how exactly this works, I headed Stateside to meet one of these teams and pick their brains on the state of the game in the US.

* * *

Think of Colorado and you probably wouldn't think of Greeley. It is a fairly anonymous town, one of the last frontiers of Colorado's Front Range commuter belt before you hit the border with Wyoming. It also doesn't have a lot in common with the Colorado stereotype: it is flat, not mountainous; it is industrial, not natural; it is staunchly Republican, not a shoo-in for the Democrats. It is best known for its university and its stench: a composite of burning animal waste, carcasses and agricultural gases; the rankness can only truly be understood by experiencing it. Greeley was (in)famously summarised on the iconic Colorado TV series South Park as 'the exact opposite of Hawaii'.

Greeley is, however, part of the US's grassroots soccer revolution. FC Greeley joined the UPSL as part of the league's creation of a Colorado Conference in 2017. They play in the Pro Premier division, the top tier of the Conference, with eight opponents, while an additional six play in the second-tier Championship division. They're one of the few clubs that operate outside of Colorado's population core of Boulder and the Denver metro area, and the most northern team in the division since the closure of Fort Collins United.

I met the club for the first time at one of their weekly training sessions, led by head coach Lance Williams. Lance is the founder of FC Greeley and the wider FC Colorado organisation that fields youth and reserve teams. Despite the emphasis on the Colorado brand, Lance is not a Colorado native himself, rather he began his coaching career in Virginia, where he studied at the John Ellis Academy. Ellis, an Englishman and ex-Royal Marine, is one of the unsung contributors to the game in North America: as well as his academy, he has served as an ambassador for the game on behalf of the British Government; his daughter is current head coach of the ever-successful US Women's national team, and – perhaps fittingly for this story – was once head coach of the Trinidad and Tobago national team. Most importantly, however, he gave Lance his way into coaching, and after a stint coaching college soccer, romance dragged him out to the Rocky Mountains. Undeterred by the change of scenery, Lance seized the opportunity to start his own club, and so FC Greeley came to fruition. Six years later they joined the UPSL to formally become part of the US soccer pyramid.

Lance wastes no time in introducing me to some of his players, beginning with centre-back Taylor Smyser. Taylor is the most experienced player in the team, having played competitive football in Europe. Starting out at Leeds Beckett University, he then moved onto UD Gijon Industrial in Spain, where he helped the side return to the Tercera Division in 2017. Despite this, he was released at the season's end, and has now returned to the United States to seek new opportunities. He is vice-captain here at FC Greeley, second only to Vicente Vega.

Despite only being in his mid-twenties, Vicente is the most senior player at the club with three years of experience as an FC Greeley player. Initially a product of the Colorado Rapids academy, he went on to play Division II college soccer for two years before finally ending up at FC Greeley. Since then Vicente has very much become part of the club's fabric: he established the club's youth system which has since grown to 18 teams.

Two of the most interesting players came in the form of attacking midfielder Vini Neves and right-back Luis Barraza. Vini is a student from Brazil, here in the US on an exchange program operated by an organisation called MVP Academy. Luis – known as 'Luisito' to teammates – is the youngest player at the club at just 15 years old, but despite this has already begun to make appearances off the bench for the first team.

Surprisingly, Vini's motivation is education rather than football: he proudly tells me of his full-ride scholarship at the nearby Aims Community College. That is not to say Vini has lost his love of the game though, as he tells me his ambition remains to turn pro. His footballing inspiration is not Pele, Ronaldo or Neymar, but Leandro Damiao, a 'late bloomer' by Brazilian standards. Similarly, Luis hopes FC Greeley will act as a springboard for a future pro career, or at the very least get him a college scholarship.

Talking to the quartet I start to get a sense of the optimism that runs through FC Greeley. They speak glowingly of opportunities that the club has brought them. Some are as simple as a shorter commute to training, but others like Luis relish the challenge the club provides compared to the recreational leagues he was once stuck with. They all talk of the future in positive terms: of promotion/relegation finally arriving in America; of league restructuring; of FC Greeley finally joining a formal pyramid system. For one reason or another, FC Greeley is the way forward in their eyes, be it helping Vicente transition to a coaching role, to the hope it will kickstart a career higher up.

One thing they all have in common is respect for Lance. Whether implied or directly stating it, all are grateful for what FC Greeley has given them. For Luis it's an opportunity to test himself and progress as a player, for Vicente a starting point for a future coaching career (he tells me his ambition is to manage his own team), for Vini it's one last shot at becoming a pro. Taylor sums it up to me when he describes Lance as an 'authority figure...creating a soccer environment'.

Watching the team train, it becomes clear the enthusiasm is shared by the entire squad. Not just in the sizeable number of people who play for this amateur team, but in their ambitious style of play. Searching crosses, skilful turns and dribbles, finessed volleys and chipping of the goalkeeper. Every possession is an opportunity to try something new, to find a new move to outfox their opponent on matchday. It strikes of a team that wants to push itself and feels comfortable doing so. This, coupled with the direct and indirect praise, speaks volumes about the culture Lance fosters at his club.

* * *

The next evening, I was able to sit down with Lance for a chat. As a man who has worked at the development level for his entire coaching career I was keen to get his perspective on how the bottom compares to the top.

He is brutal in his assessment of the state of the American game: there is no pressure to succeed being applied at any level, and as a result it is stagnating. The 'pay to play' scheme operated by youth teams is much maligned already due to its exclusionary nature, but Lance identifies another issue with it: if you're paying, then playing becomes 'your right'. You've put your money into the club so it's only right you're rewarded with playing time, regardless of your talent level. With no punishment for failure, there's no improvement to strive for.

This feeds into Lance's overarching criticism of US Soccer as a 'closed system', where decisions are made for self-preservation purposes rather than feeding competition. As well as a closed system of youth development dominated by MLS teams that set needless targets, lower down the non-profits who provide youth soccer – while well-meaning – are not pros, so they don't make the right decisions for competitiveness. He summarises the state of US Soccer as currently lacking 'The Dream': a culture where people are striving to succeed because success is rewarded, all while failure is punished. This, to Lance, is where lower leagues like the UPSL come in. They embody the 'free market', as he calls it. A place where playing is an earned privilege and if you're not performing you will be dropped. If you have everything handed to you or feel it should be, you're not going to get very far. The American sporting juggernauts of the NFL and NBA have succeeded in this regard: train and play hard in school or you won't get picked up by a college, then train and play hard in college or you won't be able to turn pro, then train and play hard in the pros or this contract will be your last. It may be brutal, and it may be unfair, but when the European game has been operating like this for well over a century it's hard to dispute its merits.

While Lance’s beliefs about the game may be cut-throat, listening to the man himself is anything but. He is a very likeable guy and a cheerful conversationalist. At training he retains his positive demeanour, it's just tweaked a little into positive encouragement to succeed. He has subtle ways of implanting competitiveness into his players, the most notable being the punishment sets of press-ups and sit-ups he dishes out to teams who lose training games. He might not be the best friend they'll ever have, but his value as a mentor is clear. It's not hard to see why the players display a respect for him.

There is though an anger under the surface. It's a twofold combination of factors, the first being the frustration of a lack of respect. The club rents facilities from the University of Northern Colorado, and they aren't always the most hospitable landlords. One training session I attended took place without proper goals, which were locked behind a fence. When Lance asked for the key, he was informed that the team rented the pitch and not the goals. Similarly, a game was called off after a downpour, not because the pitch was unplayable, but the University were concerned about the damage playing on it would cause, forcing the game to be abandoned at half-time.

The second is the expanding reach of the closed system, swallowing up more and more of American soccer. While Lance's dislike of MLS is a given, when I bring up the subject of USL he's similarly disparaging. Over the past few years USL has usurped NASL as the nation's second-tier, and in Lance's eyes it's clear why: it's joined at the hip with MLS. NASL was a threat to US Soccer's closed system, so MLS and USL joined forces to push them out of the picture. Since then USL has only served to further close the system with the presence of MLS reserve teams, further solidifying who is at the top and is going to stay there.

In short, it's a battle for FC Greeley to lay their roots and the top end of the game is doing nothing to help them, instead attempting to seal off their bubble from outside influence, and it seems to be working. Lance's most damning comment comes when he highlights the upcoming Leansa tournament. Leansa is, in essence, a big scouting showcase organised by teams from Mexico's Liga MX to evaluate prospects and potentially sign them to their reserve sides. For Lance's players it's their best shot at going pro. Not because Liga MX sides are bigger or richer or even better at developing youth, but because they actually seek out these players, while MLS teams refuse to reach beyond their own narrow vision. Lance sums it up thus: the number of FC Greeley players that have gone on to join an MLS side stands at just 1. In the same timeframe, three have headed south of the border thanks to Leansa.

Based on all the above it would be easy to assume Lance is cynical about US Soccer, but this is not the case. He sees the talent coming through in the US national team, singling out Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams as future stars. He even concedes that New York Red Bulls have been a force for good with their strong culture of developing players. When the subject shifts to the grassroots is when his optimism truly shines, though. He speaks glowingly of the UPSL and what they are doing for the US game. He praises them for bringing structure to amateur level soccer in the United States, and by extension helping to streamline the convoluted qualifying process for the US Open Cup, the one tournament sanctioned by US Soccer that Lance seems to hold in high regard. He even tells me with a touch of glee how two teams were kicked out of the league for irregularities, not at their demise but for UPSL's no-tolerance approach: it's a league that is determined not to fail like so many before it, so is not going to tolerate anything that jeopardises its continuity.

Lance isn't out of love with the game in the US, rather he loves it too much and is determined to help shape a culture change. When I bring up the subject of the US's shock World Cup exit his first word is simply 'Ouch'. He is a student, fan and lover of the game. He felt that defeat hard, likely harder than the folks in the offices of US Soccer did, so it's not surprising when he sums the game up as 'Corporate vs. Passion'.

Instead of lying down and accepting this dark time, he's pushing back. In his own words he wants to 'force change from the inside' by fostering a culture at the grassroots that blossoms to the extent that those at the top cannot ignore or suppress it, and perhaps the rapid expansion of UPSL says he's far from alone in that mission.

* * *

While in Colorado I took the opportunity to take in my first MLS game, a clash between Colorado Rapids and New York Red Bulls. Having had the supposed villain of American soccer described to me by Lance, it was only right I took a look at it for myself. Against the backdrop of a sleek, bustling-but-not-heaving Dick's Sporting Goods Park, the visitors ran out 2-1 winners.

Was what I saw the antithesis of football? Other than Colorado's anaemic attack, not really. Colorado have a respectable thing going on: the crowd is young, with dedicated supporters running displays behind one of the goals. Before every Colorado corner an Icelandic ‘Thunderclap’ broke out, escalating until the set piece was taken. Call that cheesy if you like, but it shows fans are involved and invested in their team. Mocking MLS is a European pastime, but isn't it better to have a horde of regular fans genuinely supporting their team in a silly way than the revolving door of tourists at Old Trafford whose only interest is getting the best possible selfie?

Yet for everything I liked about Colorado Rapids, some things brought Lance's words flooding back. When buying my ticket for the game I had to go through Kroenke Sports Enterprises. Not Colorado Rapids, but the umbrella organisation for all the sports teams that Mr. Kroenke exploits. Club merchandise is extremely overpriced: replica shirts are $120, or roughly £90, while the most expensive Premier League shirt last season was £60. Even the traditional pin badge was a few coins more than what I've paid even at the top level in Europe. Perhaps all this plus recent poor results explained why the stadium looked very sparse while I was there, despite one of the better-known MLS teams being in town.

And what is Colorado's punishment for all this? Nothing. Finish bottom of the league and they'll still be an MLS team, still raking in the revenue sharing and media deal and other perks of being the undisputed top flight. And if the fans jump ship? They can simply relocate. Columbus Crew are currently trying their best to force through a move to Austin. One of the league's original teams, exploring new grounds for American sports by setting up shop in a market with no other major professional teams at the time, and being the first to build their own football-specific stadium. A team that led the league in attendance at the height of MLS's struggles is now looking for a way out, and presumably with league backing too.

It's hard to argue against Lance's point that American soccer is in dire need of a culture change. It is too ‘American’ in its setup, a league whose sole priority is to shore up its own position rather than foster any meaningful competition, and while that may fly in sports where America has a monopoly on top-level competition, it won't here. It's not entirely MLS's fault, it was trying to bring a format familiar to the American sports fan to the market at a very late stage, but now that soccer has firmly planted its roots in the United States and the locals have seen what the European culture is like, it's fair to say they want change.

So, will UPSL be the saviour of US soccer? Who knows. All signs are positive given the league's rapid expansion which has made them one of, if not the largest amateur league in the US, but there's still a cavernous gap between them and MLS/USL. They have filled a much-needed niche, but without a pipeline to that top level, the talent UPSL is harnessing will not develop. UPSL itself isn't a complete product, as most teams lack dedicated facilities and support. While this may seem a nit-pick, there is a point to this: Lance talked of struggles to recruit players from other amateur teams in the area. Despite being higher in the theoretical pyramid of US Soccer, they aren't recognised as such by other teams. In the same way there's no upward pipeline for UPSL, there's no downward one either.

But one thing I will say in their favour is they have something the US game is sorely in need of after that night in Port of Spain: people with ideas. US Soccer hasn't thought beyond its wallet for too long and paid the price, but in the process inspired people to believe the US game could be different and could reach beyond its current, arguably self-imposed limits. Lance is an inspirational individual who has already given opportunity to countless players and coaches that US Soccer has failed. If anyone will rekindle the flame of US soccer, it won't be an expansion franchise in Austin or Nashville, but Lance and the many others like him running UPSL teams. While his ideas may verge on idealistic at times, I see no reason why he shouldn't think so boldly when leaders at US Soccer clearly haven't bothered. In one area especially I share Lance's optimism, in that FC Greeley can tap into something long unappreciated by sports in the United States: the power of the small town.

American professional sports have long been dominated by media markets, where you can go to get the best broadcast deals. It's why the likes of the Chargers and Clippers were chomping at the bit to relocate to Los Angeles. The only outlier in this regard is college sports. Many are based out of obscure towns and have turned said towns into a mecca for these teams. College sports have turned places like Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Clemson and College Station into household names, and in some of these places college takes precedence over pros.

Greeley is one such town. University of Northern Colorado bunting hangs from street signs, window and bumper stickers proclaim support for the Bears. Second-tier they may be, but they are Greeley's thing, and the town embraces them. There is a market here for their own thing. Not the Denver or the Colorado team, but the Greeley team, and this demand exists in every town across America, big or small. The US is beginning to realise this as markets overlooked by MLS start their own teams to great success, but perhaps UPSL will wake US Soccer up to the fact that small-town America is tired of being looked upon as a catchment area.

To reinforce this, I think back to my meeting with Lance at the Small Earth Brewing Company in downtown Greeley. This area of town was once decrepit and undeveloped, but in the past decade has found a new lease of life for shops, stores, and most importantly bars. Scott, the owner and brew master here, has a passion and enthusiasm for brewing that's infectious even to a non-drinker like myself. I can sense the love for his craft that emanates from him, and that love is finding an audience beyond Colorado's borders. Northern Colorado is now renowned nationwide as a hotbed of craft brewing. An area once locked into an image of Coors Light, despite it being brewed miles from here, has broken free and forged a reputation of its own. No longer is it an anonymous commuter belt town consuming mass-produced beer, it's a place of its own making its own product, and the locals are rightly proud of it.

Looking at where brewing has come from and what it has achieved for Northern Colorado, I can't help but see the same story playing out with football. It may still be in its 'brewing in the garden shed' phase, but with a few years of development and some facilities of their own hopefully the grassroots revolution Lance believes in will come to fruition. Cheers to that.